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The Language of Scholarship in Africa


By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 42-47]

[Plenary talk at African Studies Association (UK) conference 2012, hosted by Leeds African Studies programme. It was a special pleasure because Leeds is my alma mater].

Scholarship is not a neutral activity, even its conceptual vocabulary. The meeting between imperial European armies and the fighting back African armies is often described as soldiers pitted against warriors. Warriors are African; soldiers are European. Warriors live to fight. They smell, breathe and dream of war. Soldiers fight in a time of war. They fight to defend territory, nation or impose the will of their nation over another. Soldiers use guns, sophisticated weaponry; warriors, spears, simis and machetes, crude weaponry.  Where soldiers shoot their enemies, oh how civilised, warriors spear and hack, oh how primitive.  The imperial soldier is professional, rational in his calculations; the warrior is blood thirsty, driven by impulses.

No matter in whose hands, scholarship impacts how people look at and view social reality, including history and culture. For centuries, cartographers have conditioned people to think that Africa is smaller than Europe. Yet as some maps have shown, Africa is bigger than a combination of Europe, USA, China, India, Argentina, and New Zealand put together. Scholarship started and helped perpetuate the notion of Africa north of the Sahara, including Egypt, as European, and the South as being Africa proper, the horde of tribes in perpetual warfare.  Hegel emphatically declared that history, the enlightenment of reason and science, had bypassed his proper Africa which remained enveloped in the dark mantle of the night, an image no doubt arising from his reading of colonial travel narratives that talked about Dark or Darkest Africa.  Hegel’s image becomes a truth in the grandiloquent stupidity of Trevor Roper of Oxford when in the 1960’s he claimed that Africa had only darkness to exhibit prior to European colonial presence. Since darkness was not a subject of history, the history of Africa began with European colonialism. Some of these attitudes have changed in large part because of enlightened scholarship, but still, the nomenclature of North and South of the Sahara, and the vocabulary of warring tribes, have become a given, more or less, in the discussion on the politics of the continent. Even when the adjective “warring” is omitted, the word tribe has become enshrined in the annals of scholarship and popular parlance.

The other day I received a call, well a suggestion, from one of my progressive colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, that we revive and rehabilitate the word and concept of tribe. He, and some other scholars interested in Africa and Middle Eastern Studies had been chatting on how to reintegrate the subject of tribes into contemporary historical, sociological and anthropological research and teaching on the Middle East, North Africa and Africa. While the email acknowledged that the concept of tribes had a very problematic history for anyone studying the global south and formerly colonised word, it stated that it was clear that tribes as a social-economic and political concept and  marker of identity were still quite relevant  in many if not most societies we study.

The five letter word, again! There was absolutely no negative intent in the suggestion. Still, my eyes popped up. Two years ago I gave a lecture at the University of Hawaii on the myth of Tribe in African politics.  I looked at how the five letter word had been used by scholars and journalists to editorialise how people looked at Africa. It was colonialism that first created the template of X-tribe versus Y-tribe as a way of explaining conquest and control or what Achebe’s district commissioner in the novel, Things Fall Apart, famously described as ‘the pacification of tribes of lower Niger’. Journalists use the template of X versus Y to explain any crisis in any part of Africa. They look at the communities from which the protagonists come, and everything becomes clear: It’s the traditional enmity between X and Y. It is tribal warfare. Even respectable scholars often use the same template, only that theirs is covered with copious footnotes and references to Aristotle and Hobbes. I posed the question: why were four million Danes, or a quarter of a million Icelanders, a nation, and not ten million Yorubas, Ibos or Zulus?

Even when scholars and journalists don’t use the word nation in reference to European peoples, they at least refer to them by the names they call themselves. Thus they talk about the English, the Germans, the French, the Chinese, or simply, Chinese people, English people. But when it comes to Africa the words tribe and tribesmen must be appended to the reference. Hence Yoruba tribe, Zulu tribe. Ibo tribesmen, gĩkũyũ tribesmen. An Englishman gets a Nobel prize in chemistry. He is rightfully referred to as Mr So and so, an English man or woman. An African gets a Nobel prize in chemistry, and he is editorialised as Mr. so and so, an X or Y tribesman or tribeswoman. Novelist Ngugi, a Gikuyu tribesman, was imprisoned by Jomo Kenyatta, his fellow tribesman. African heads of state must be editorialised as President so and so, an Y or X Tribesman.

So my reaction to the email was quick and direct.  Far from trying to rehabilitate the word and the concept, we should wage struggle against its usage.  The same scholar, and I want to emphasise his was an honest call, said that he had been to the Middle East and North Africa and found the term in use. In other words people in Africa used the term.  My first reaction was that even when people in Africa use it, it’s simply because they have internalised a negativity. The abnormal has become normalised into a normality without losing its abnormality. But my colleague’s citation of Qabila, the Arabic word for tribe, started me thinking.

The Arabic Qabila, becomes Kabila in Kiswahili, and Kabira in Gĩkũyũ. But even when those terms refer to the same grouping as referred to by the English term, they have a different ring and nuance to them, they are more descriptive of a fact than a framing of difference in development and modernity.  In my own language, the word ruriri, has no negativity, being a reference to a community of people with a common language, land and culture. The negativity in the terms tribe and tribesmen, lies in the European languages, English in particular. The English word tribe in its colonial colours is a term of an outsider looking at others.

I have suggested elsewhere that our various fields of knowledge of Africa are in many ways rooted in that entire colonial tradition of the outsider looking in, gathering and coding knowledge with the help of native informants, and then storing the final product in a European language for consumption by those who have access to that language. Anthropology, in its beginnings at least, was the study of the insider by the outsider, for the consumption of fellow outsider, and that attitude permeates the genealogy of European studies of Africa. We, the inheritors and continuants of that tradition, in many ways ‘anthropologise’ Africa, especially in method. Even within the continent, the Africa of colonial anthropology is seen as the true Africa. Pictures used by the tourist boards of various African countries are largely those of an Africa frozen in time.  The complexity of the continent  with is mixture of traces of past and present, the skyscraper and the shack, poverty and wealth, engineers and herdspeople, cities and wilderness, cars and cattle,  is reduced to the spear, and the lion, a beaded figure, and the begging bowl.  The bowl of the beggar overlooks the fact that the bowl of the giver overflows with goodies taken from the beggar’s own granary.

This relationship between European and African languages is that of the two bowls, enrichment of one by impoverishment of the other. Today, we still collect intellectual items and put them in European language museums and archives. Africa’s global visibility is only through the grace of European languages.

How many historians, African and non Africans alike, have ever written even a single document in an African language?[1] How many researchers have even retained the original field notes in words spoken by the primary informant? Our knowledge of Africa is largely filtered through European languages and their vocabulary. There are those of course who will argue that African languages are incapable of handling complexities of social thought, that they have no adequate vocabulary, in short, African languages, like their speakers, are riddled with poverty.

This objection was long ago answered by one of the brightest intellects from Africa, Cheikh Anita Diop, when he argued that no language had a monopoly of cognitive vocabulary, that every language could develop its terms for science and technology, This is the position being maintained by contemporary thinkers like Kwesi Kwaa Prah whose CASAS (Center for Advanced Studies of African Society) based in Cape Town, South Africa, is doing so much to advocate the use of African languages in all fields of learning, even in scientific thought. Other places with similar advocacy include that of the philosopher Paulin Hountondji, at the African Center for Advanced Studies, based in Porto-Novo, Benin, which has tried to promote African languages as media for African scientific thought. There are other individuals like the late Neville Alexander of Cape Town, South Africa, who chaired the committee that came up with the very enlightened South African policy on languages and Kwesi Wiredu, who long ago called on African philosophers to engage issues in African languages. This advocacy has a long history going back to the Xhosa intellectuals of the late nineteenth century and has continued among Zulu Intellectuals of the 1940s.

All these intellectuals have tried to debunk the claims of poverty of African languages, the inadequacy of words and terms. It should not be forgotten that even English and French had to overcome similar claims of inadequacy as vehicles for philosophy and scientific thought as against the then dominant Latin. Those languages needed the courage of their intellectuals to break out of the dominance of Latin memory. In the introduction to his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Descartes defends his use of vernacular for philosophic thought against similar claims of inadequacy of concepts in French.

I have tried to argue that what African languages need is a similar commitment from African intellectuals.  It only needs courage and hard work exemplified by the case of Dr Gatua wa Mbũgwa. Gatua wa Mbũgwa was a graduate student at Cornell University and in May 2003, he presented and successfully defended his Master’s thesis on The impact of bio-intensive cropping on yields and nutrient contents of collard greens in Kenya in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell University. There is nothing unusual in this. What was new was the fact that the entire Master’s thesis was in the Gĩkũyũ language. For Gatua wa Mbũgwa, it meant sheer dedication and lots of work for he had to provide an English translation. Later Dr Mbugwa joined the University of Wyoming where he did research in the US Central High Plains region recording his data in Gĩkũyũ, and later successfully defended his PhD dissertation that he wrote in Gĩkũyũ.

As far as I know, Mbũgwa’s work is the first-ever scientific work in Gĩkũyũ at any university in or outside Africa. He had no tradition on which to fall back, not even that of a stable scientific vocabulary, but this did not daunt his spirits. Most of his field work and field work notes in Kenya and the USA were in Gĩkũyũ. He wrote the entire thesis in Gĩkũyũ before doing auto-translation for purposes of his teachers who, of course, had to evaluate the scientific content. At present there are no Gĩkũyũ language scientific journals or publishers. But he has published scholarly articles from his dissertation in English language scientific journals.

So what? Some cynics will respond and assert that Gĩkũyũ cannot sustain a written intellectual production. I can only point out that the Gĩkũyũ people are about ten million. The Danish are about four million. All books written and published in Gĩkũyũ cannot fill up a shelf. Books written and published in Danish number thousands and fill up the shelves of many libraries. The Yoruba people number more than ten million. The Swedes are about eight million. But intellectual production in the two languages is very different. How come that ten million Africans cannot sustain such a production whereas eight million Swedes can? Icelanders number about two hundred and fifty thousand. They have one of the most flourishing intellectual productions in Europe. What a quarter of a million people can do, surely ten million people can also accomplish.  Today we talk of Greek and Latin intellectual heritage and forget that these productions were city in origins.  The vaunted Italian renaissance and its rich and varied heritage in the arts and architecture and learning were largely from the different regions of Rome, Florence, Mantua, Venice and Genoa. What the vernaculars of these city states, principalities and regions by way of intellectual production have been able to do, can be done by any other similarly situated languages.

The question remains: what would be the place of European languages in African scholarship? No matter how we may think of the historical process by which they came to occupy the place they now do in our lives, it is a fact that English and French have enabled international visibility of the African presence. But they have achieved this by uprooting the African intellectuals from their linguistic and cultural base. They have merely invited African intellectuals to operate within European memory. European languages (principally English, French and Portuguese) now carry immense deposits of some the best in literary and general African thought. They are granaries of African intellectual productions, and ironically, these productions as a whole are the nearest thing to a common Pan-African social property. The names of Samir Amin, Ali Mazrui, Wole Soyinka, Sembene Ousmane, Mariam Ba, Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Sedar Senghor, Agostino Neto, Alex la Guma (to name just a few) are part of a common visibility of African presence enabled by European languages. These languages also enable conferences like the one we are having here today. The latter in fact defines best the mission we should assign to French and English. Use them to enable dialogue among African languages and visibility of African languages in the community of world languages instead of their being a tool of disabling by uprooting intellectuals and their production from their original language base. Use English and French to enable and not to disable.

This then is the challenge of scholarship in Africa today: How best to really connect with the African continent, in the era of globalisation? For African scholars, we cannot afford to be intellectual outsiders in our own land. We must re-connect with the buried alluvium of African memory and use it as a base for the further planting of African memory on the continent and in the world. This can only result in the empowerment of African languages and cultures and make them pillars of a more self-confident Africa ready to engage the world, through give and take, but from its base in African memory.

In 1978, locked in a maximum security prison in Kenya for a work I had done in an African language, I wrote defiantly to my jailers asserting that African intellectuals must do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs. But non-African scholars cannot escape from the challenge. An English scholar, digging into the history and culture of Italy, studies Italian. The same for students of Chinese or Japanese history and culture. They study Japanese, Chinese. There is no scholar, Chinese or non-Chinese, who could ever claim to be a sinologist, without a word of Chinese. But in Africa and for Africa, on the whole, we claim to be scholars of this or that aspect of African history, culture, society, politics, without accepting the challenge and the responsibility. Scholarship on Africa has no alternative but to engage in African languages if it is to rise above level of mimicry to contribute originality to the common stream of world knowledge.

[1] At the Leeds conference, in response to my question as to whether any of the more than fifty scholars had ever written a page in an African language in their entire scholarship on Africa, only three hands were raised. For more than a page, not one hand was raised.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan novelist, playwright and polemicist. His outstanding novels including A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood are seen as key texts in the canon of African literature, alongside his major works of cultural interrogation, Decolonising the Mind and Moving the Centre. Ngũgĩ currently lives in the US and works at the University of California, Irvine, having been forced to leave Kenya in 1982 after his Gikuyu language political theatre stirred the ire of the repressive government of Daniel arap Moi. Ngũgĩ is a much beloved alumnus of the University of Leeds where he studied for his MA in literature in the 1960s, and the University was delighted to give him an honorary doctorate in 2004.

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